When we were in college my husband did this annoying thing where he woke me up in the middle of class.
We weren’t even dating, but he felt a moral obligation to make sure I got my money’s worth out of every syllable from my New Testament professor. I remember vaguely thinking something along the lines of, “Who is this guy?!”
Then, we started dating and we sat in church together. Sure enough, he started waking me during sermons too. Grrrrr. That wasn’t just irritating. It was embarrassing. I was a theology major for pity’s sake! More than that…
I loved Jesus. Why was it so darn hard to stay awake for Him?
Dave never added to my humiliation. He really just gave me a quiet nudge. He was giving me kindness, reminding me of what I believed…sermons are important. I came to church to be filled with the Word, not take a nap. I wanted to stay awake for things. I really did. As an adult I recognize that I need a substantial amount of sleep to function well. College held lots of late nights and just enough immaturity for me that I couldn’t quite stay awake when someone started talking theology for more than 10 minutes. (Ironic, I know.) Because of my embarrassment, I always transformed Dave’s little nudge into righteous anger in my mind saying to myself, “I wasn’t asleep! He’s so sensitive. Seriously, Dave, lighten up.”
It wasn’t until, at just the right moment, Acts 20 crossed my path, that I found hope for my sermon sleeping and, as hope usually looks, it came in the shape of a little bit of Law, and a whole lot of Gospel.
Please read Acts 20 to find what I think is the first recorded Biblical account of sermon sleeping:
7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.
Eutychus, my friend, when I get to heaven, I look forward to saying thank you for lifting my shame.
God knows just what we need. This passage brought up three questions for me in quick succession:
Question #1: Who in the world falls asleep while Paul, the Paul, is talking?
If anyone is going to be interesting, I wondered, isn’t it going to be Paul? I puffed myself up thinking I would never fall asleep listening to Paul. I would give up life and limb to be that guy listening to the Apostle Paul.
The Law rushed in — I fell asleep all the time. Wasn’t God’s Word interesting enough by itself for me? Wasn’t I falling asleep to the Apostle Paul’s writings essentially?
Boo. No one likes a soul that tattles on itself, but that’s exactly what God gave us and it’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s easy to blame the pastor or blame the church when we don’t like a sermon. It’s easy to call it uninspiring or unrelatable. It’s easy to write our grocery list too, or mentally check off what needs to be done for the week. It’s easy to check out in our drowsiness. Life is busy and life is exhausting.
The Law told me that day that I was guilty. It’s my own job to get enough rest, stay alert, and “get something” out of the sermon. I had closed my heart, intentionally or unintentionally, to hearing the grace God was reaching out to me with and responded with,
“No thank You. I’m a little too tired right now.”
Question #2: If I loved Jesus enough, wouldn’t I stay awake?
Quickly, my mind flitted to another question. My conscience began to prick in all the best ways when I heard Eutychus’s story. Here is another young adult, just like me, hungry for the Word of God, but battling the Old Adam of sin and, in many ways, a slightly drowsy faith walk. Paul himself teaches us in Romans 7:15:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
I think young adulthood is when you first become glaringly aware of this dynamic. Even when we try really, really hard, we end up with palm to face wondering what in the world went wrong.
Eutychus wanted to hear the Word. I mean, he showed up and I think that’s important to note. Then, Paul talked…and taught…and talked…and taught. It was after midnight. It’s hard to listen to theology after 9pm, much less midnight. I’m not excusing his action (or inaction, really) or mine, but it’s very important that we understand that God’s economy doesn’t work by separating the sermon-sleeping goats from the righteous, alert, and attentive sheep.
Should we stay awake and learn? Yes! But neither Jesus’s love for us, nor our love or belief in Jesus, is dependent on our abilities, ever.
Next came the Gospel…
Question #3: Is that a resurrection?
Read Acts 20:9-10 again, so we don’t miss this moment of abundant grace and mercy:
9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”
Three stories up, a long fall down, and taken up dead — that might have been the conclusion to Eutychus’s story. The Greek term for dead in Acts 20:9, nekros, literally means what lacks life. There are 130 occurrences of this Greek root in the New Testament and they are all either about dead people, being dead in our sins without Jesus, or the power of God to raise the dead. How very appropriate.
The Holy Spirit moved in Paul, and in Acts 20:10, Paul went down to Eutychus and took him in his arms, calmed the weary crowd’s fears, and God brought grace.
The link between resurrection and forgiveness in this instance could not be stronger. Eutychus, Paul, and the rest of the congregation took one who once was dead and ate, drank, and conversed with him for the rest of the night. There is so much comfort to be had there! Yes he was alive, which is comforting, but he was also given grace, which means grace is available from this God they came to hear about from Paul.
There is hope for sermon sleepers, resurrection hope.
Where there once was heartache, there now is Hope.
I didn’t deserve it, but God as always gave all the grace. I stopped looking at Dave like he had twenty heads. Eventually, I stopped falling asleep (probably because there were toddlers to take care of in the pew, but that story is for another day).
Romans 7:16 gives Truth:
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.
The Law is good. Sleeping in church is not good. Avoiding God’s Word in any way is not good.
Go just a little further to Romans 8:1-2 for Truth and Grace:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Jesus changes everything, for Eutychus and for me. We are ruled by Life, not death, not condemnation. I can hear the Law and there comes the Gospel. It’s a beautiful thing.
Something I’m gonna want to stay awake for.
*Greek reference: http://biblehub.com/greek/3498.htm